Report: Turkish police detain hundreds of protesting airport construction workers

Turkish police have detained hundreds of workers protesting labor conditions at İstanbul’s new airport, a giant project championed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and due to open next month, a union leader told Reuters on Saturday.

The protest broke out after a shuttle bus accident on Friday in which 17 workers were injured, said Özgür Karabulut, general manager of the Dev Yapı-İş union.

Thousands of workers joined the demonstration, which was broken up by police and gendarmes in riot control vehicles and firing tear gas, he said.

“They broke into the workers’ camp with 30 gendarmes, broke down the doors and detained around 500 workers,” Karabulut told Reuters by phone. He said he was speaking from a local gendarmerie station where he was seeking the workers’ release.

Ali Bayar, a deputy from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), put the number of those detained at around 400. The workers’ quarters “look like a detention camp… When we went there this morning gendarmes were still detaining workers,” Bayar told Reuters.

The new airport, which Turkey says will become the biggest in the world, is one of the showcase projects of a 15-year construction boom under Erdoğan, who has overseen the building of bridges, ports and railways that have transformed the country.

Detained hundreds of construction workers have been held in custody in police and gendarme stations in İstanbul.

The growth has been fueled by cheap debt, however, and Erdoğan said on Friday the government is freezing new investments to rein in inflation and support the lira, which has lost 40 percent against the dollar this year. The airport is scheduled to open on October 29, but Karabulut said that was in doubt because the remaining work would take another two months.

Unions have long complained about working conditions and labor safety at the airport, but under a state of emergency imposed after a controversial coup attempt on July 15, 2016, and only lifted in July 2018, the right to strike or protest was curtailed.

In February, Turkey’s labor ministry said 27 workers had died at the airport since the start of work there in 2015, mainly from work accidents or health problems.

Workers have also complained about the poor food at the site, bed bugs in their sleeping quarters and delayed salaries. Pictures they posted online showed cracks in the ceilings and walls of the container homes where they are housed. Airport operator IGA said its CEO Kadri Samsunlu had met union representatives and was looking into their complaints.

Karabulut said the union had received only verbal pledges from IGA and wanted commitments in writing. But he said many workers were unable to continue protesting. “Most of them had to go to work today under pressure and under threat,” he said. “So they went to work today unwillingly but they want the public to know that they will be protesting tonight if their friends are not released.”

The Turkish authorities have covered up the deaths of 400 construction workers during the construction of the controversial third airport in İstanbul, according to a report by Cumhuriyet daily on February 12, 2018.

According to the report, scandals have been taking place in terms of work safety in the construction of the third airport, which has attracted the reaction of environmentalists and scientists due to its destruction of nature. It is claimed that dozens of construction workers have lost their lives so far at the construction site of the third airport where 31,000 workers are employed.

According to Cumhuriyet report, the employees have described the construction site as a “graveyard.” The workers said employers have put pressure on workers to hurry up and that there are no work safety measures at the construction site. They have said the deaths have been hidden by the employers by giving money to the families of the victims, who have come from as far away as Anatolian cities. A large number of foreign nationals also work at the construction site.

According to the pro-government media, when the first phase of the airport is completed, it will have a capacity of 90 million passengers. With completion in four stages, the airport is expected to serve 150 million passengers and to provide opportunities for flights to more than 350 destinations for nearly 100 airlines. As of 2025, a total of 120 million passengers, including 35,5 million domestic flights and 84,9 million international flights, were expected to be operated in and out the airport.

İstanbul third airport, which is expected to be the largest airport in the world when fully completed in 2023, will serve as Turkey’s primary airport and a hub for connecting flights between Europe and Asia.

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